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Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood awarded German peace prize

Canadian author Margaret Atwood, famous for works such as The Handmaid's Tale, as well as Oryx and Crake, is to receive the 2017 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade.

Handmaid's Tale author Margaret Atwood awarded German peace prize
Margaret Atwood at a literature festival in Cologne. Photo: DPA

The German Publishers and Booksellers Association announced on Tuesday that Atwood will be awarded the peace prize at the end of the Frankfurt Book Fair on October 15th in a televised ceremony at the Church of St. Paul, according to the prize's website.

The €25,000 prize is given to people who have “contributed in an outstanding way to the idea of peace” in the fields, of literature, science, and art. It has been awarded since 1950, and previous winners include German journalist Carolin Emcke, and German-born Swiss author Hermann Hesse. 

The news was shared on Tuesday by the head of the German Publishers and Booksellers Association, Heinrich Riethmüller. 

“In her wide range of novels, essays and volumes of poetry, Atwood has demonstrated a keen political intuition and a deeply perceptive ability to detect dangerous and underlying developments and tendencies,” the peace prize website states.

“Humanity, justice and tolerance are the unvarying characteristics of Atwood’s work. With an alert eye and a profound knowledge of humankind, she observes the world around her and articulates her verdicts and concerns for our fate in an equally eloquent and vivid literary manner.

“Through her, we experience who we are, where we stand and what responsibilities we carry with regard to ourselves and our peaceful coexistence with others,” the statement continued.

Atwood signs books at the University of Oviedo, Spain. Photo: DPA/EFE

The 77-year-old prolific author has penned more than 50 works in the form of novels, short stories, essays, theatre pieces, film scripts, radio plays, children's books and even comics.

Her works have now been translated into more than 30 languages and she has been lauded as Canada's most successful author.

Atwood's international break-through was in 1985 with The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel in which she depicts a fundamentalist theocracy where women are systematically degraded and must take on roles as baby-producing machines. Volker Schlöndorff’s film adaptation of the novel made Atwood known to an even wider audience. 

A TV series adaptation of the novel was first broadcast in the USA in April and more recently made its way across the pond to the UK, yet again boosting the story's popularity.

FRANKFURT

How Frankfurt is holding the world’s largest book fair in a pandemic

The Frankfurt book fair, the world's largest, is going ahead this week even after a spike in coronavirus infections turned the German city into a high-risk area.

How Frankfurt is holding the world's largest book fair in a pandemic
An interview being conducted remotely at the opening of this year's Frankfurt book fair on Wednesday. Photo: DPA

With authors signing books behind plexiglass, audiences wearing masks and industry events moved online, this year's edition is unlike any other.

The rapidly worsening outbreak, in a country that has so far coped relatively well with the pandemic, forced organisers to rewrite their plans several times.

Just 48 hours before Wednesday's kickoff, fair director Jürgen Boos and his team decided to ban audiences from attending readings and interviews in a concert hall that had been due to host 450 people at a time.

READ ALSO: 10 German books you have to read before you die

“We had to react right away,” Boos told AFP, after Frankfurt was coloured red on the coronavirus map.

It was a huge blow to a fair that last year drew 300,000 visitors and has already been drastically scaled back.

The on-stage author talks at the now eerily empty Festhalle arena are still taking place however and are being live-streamed.

Also empty is the adjacent conference centre, normally a hive of activity where booklovers could rub shoulders with top publishing executives and writers like Dan Brown and Cecelia Ahern.

'Safe'

With many international visitors unable or unwilling to fly in because of the virus this year, organisers have built digital platforms for publishers and agents to discuss trends, sniff out the next bestsellers and haggle over translation rights.

Literary happenings and political talks have also shifted online and can be followed by anyone with an internet connection.

But there are still ways to experience the “Buchmesse” in person.

Hotels, museums, bars and bookshops across Frankfurt are hosting dozens of readings and discussions until Sunday to bring the fair to life, welcoming audiences of up to 50 people.

Guests have to mask up, follow social distancing guidelines and share their contact details so they can be notified if someone at the event later tests positive.

“Everything has to be completely safe in terms of health precautions,” said Boos. “But we must be able to have these personal encounters.”

At Walden cafe on Wednesday evening, retired teacher Christiane Decker-Eisel, 67, queued patiently for German novelist Bov Bjerg, seated behind a large plexiglass screen, to sign her book.

“I'm interested in his work and really wanted to be here,” she told AFP. “I feel protected with my FFP2 mask on.”


Social distancing at the opening of this year's book fair. Photo: DPA

'Chaos'

Being forced to switch to a mainly digital fair has its upsides, Boos said, allowing for larger audiences and attracting speakers who might never have come to Frankfurt.

More than 4,400 exhibitors from over 100 countries have registered to take part virtually.

For members of the public, this week's live-stream highlights include interviews with Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong, US whistleblower Edward Snowden and legendary author Margaret Atwood of “The Handmaid's Tale” fame, whose native Canada postponed its role as guest of honour at this year's fair to 2021.

But Boos said nothing could replace the physical fair with its “creativity, chance encounters and a little bit of chaos”.

Volker Bouffier, the premier of Frankfurt's Hesse state, said at the opening press conference that it was “brave” of organisers not to cancel the 2020 edition, “which would have been easier”.

But cancelling the high-profile fair, which dates back to the Middle Ages, was never really an option.

READ ALSO: 'We must prevent uncontrolled Covid-19 increase,' says Merkel as rules tightened

Boos said there was a need for the industry to get together after other book fairs, including in London and Bologna, were scrapped because of the virus.

Surveys in Europe suggest reading has increased during the Covid-19 lockdowns, particularly among children and young people, and book sales are up in several countries.

“When the bookshops closed, we realised how important books are,” Boos said.

By Michelle Fitzpatrick

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